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Update: Turbulence over judge’s chopper ruling

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | A federal judge has ruled on East Hampton's local laws passed in April to reduce noise from aircrafts.
REPORTER FILE PHOTO | A federal judge has ruled on East Hampton’s local laws passed in April to reduce noise from aircrafts.

In an eagerly awaited decision by aviation interests and anti-aircraft noise activists, a federal judge ruled June 26 that two local laws curbing uses at East Hampton’s airport will stand. Update: Turbulence over judge’s chopper ruling

Federal District Court Judge Joanna Seybert decided in Central Islip that the Town of East Hampton had proved its case that there was a problem of noise, mainly from helicopters, and the town had the right to regulate the use of its airport.

It wasn’t a total victory, however, but Judge Seybert upheld local curfew laws passed in April by the East Hampton Town Board, including:
•    a mandatory nighttime curfew from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
•    an extended curfew from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. on what the town has designated as “noisy” aircraft.

The restrictions will go into effect today, Thursday, July 2, in time for the Independence Day weekend.

On the third local law enacted by the town — a ban of one-trip-per-week on noisy aircraft for the summer months — Judge Seybert issued a preliminary injunction and will rule later on that restriction. In the meantime, the number of trips allowed per week won’t be restricted.

Kathleen Cunningham, chairwoman of the East Hampton-based Quiet Skies Coalition, said the decision is “a mixed blessing.” Although praising the court for acknowledging the town’s right to enforce restrictions on noise, Ms. Cunningham noted that for her group the most critical piece of legislation — the one-trip-per-week rule — wouldn’t be enacted now because of the judge’s preliminary injunction “and it’s not likely to happen this summer.”

The same number of flights will be flying over East End communities, but they will be “compressed into the time the airport is open,” Ms. Cunningham said. “I don’t want to understate the importance of not having a 2 a.m. jet rumbling over my house, but it’s ironic that the two curfews are less effective than the once-a-week rule.”

Supervisor Jim Dougherty, who has been an impassioned critic of low-flying helicopters and other aircraft buzzing over the Island, echoed Ms. Cunningham’s concerns. “I don’t know if [the judge’s ruling] will be adequate to fully address the noise problem,” Mr. Dougherty said. He also predicted that the legal war would continue for some time.

The East Hampton board took control of the town airport in January after years of aviation noise complaints from East End residents, including Shelter Island, which is in the path of commuter flights from Manhattan into and out of the Hamptons.

The volume of traffic increased dramatically last summer because of an improving economy and also through phone apps to easily book flights and ride sharing, providing cheaper flights to the Hamptons for the weekend and trips back to the city.

According to airport records, from January to September 2014 there were 22,350 take offs and landings at the East Hampton Airport, and over the same time frame there were 22,700 complaints logged about excess noise.

About 15 percent of the complaints came from Shelter Island residents.

The first salvo in the legal battle was fired by the Friends of East Hampton Airport Coalition (FEHAC,) a group of aviation interests, when it sued the town immediately after the legislation was passed in April.

Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for FEHAC, released a statement after the judge’s June 26 ruling, saying, “We are gratified that the court enjoined the one-trip limit, finding it to be drastic and unreasonable. We are carefully reviewing the decision and appellate options regarding the curfews.”

East Hampton Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who was elected on a platform of reducing noise at the airport and over East End towns, called Judge Seybert’s ruling “an important first step, but we must recognize that our opponents are well funded and will not give up easily. This will be a long process, not just for the pending case in federal court but also for the many other actions filed against operations at the airport.”

Kimberlea Rea, an attorney with Westervelt & Rea on North Ferry Road, believes Judge Seybert’s “ruling is a huge victory for the town.”

A former U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney and environmental lawyer in private practice, Ms. Rea has worked with and against federal and state regulatory agencies.

In her interpretation, the court upheld the town’s right to enact legislation to protect its citizens, ruling that private aviation groups cannot rely on federal law to preempt reasonable local laws.

“The only portion of the new town laws Judge Seybert did not sanction — for now, for the purposes of granting a preliminary injunction — was the one-trip-per-week limit, which she deemed ‘unreasonable,’” Ms. Rea said. But she added that the judge repeatedly left a door open for the town if, as she wrote in her decision, it takes “less restrictive measures.”

In future court proceedings, East Hampton still has the opportunity to defend it’s law by demonstrating that they “did indeed act reasonably, by showing rational reasons for the one-trip-per week limit,” Ms. Rea said.

In her experience, it’s not the state or the federal government, but towns that provide “their citizens with the real front-line protections. East Hampton just showed an example of that, fighting a courageous battle against well-capitalized opponents, to protect its people and the environment of the East End. That battle is not over, but so far, the town is winning.”